Anti-Acne Diet: Does it work?

Grow your own food for your anti-acne diet with Solar Alga

An anti-acne diet plan may sound too good to be true but is there truly evidence that suggests that a certain type of diet can reduce your chance of getting an acne flare? Many people consider diet to be one of the main lifestyle causes of hormonal acne. Is there any truth in that? Dr. Teo Wan Lin explains that acne itself is generally a genetic condition occurring in individuals who are prone to it. However, we know that certain foods can increase the oil gland activity in your skin because acne is directly related to sebum or oil gland production.

Hormonal acne for example, fluctuates during the course of your menstrual cycle. This is because of the surge of testosterone just before the onset of your period. However, your dietary choices if they include deep fried foods high in saturated fat can also cause these oil glands to be more active. Hence, if you struggle from hormonal acne, eliminating saturated fat sources will be helpful. Well, if you decide to use diet only for an acne-free diet plan, this is not the best solution. The reason is because diet forms only a part of the contributing factors for acne development. Hence, many of these acne-free diet plans promising 30 days to clear skin will not work. 

Edible Beauty: Anti Acne Diet

Edible Beauty: Dermatologist’s Guide to an Anti-Aging Diet by Dr. Teo Wan Lin available on Amazon.

Does an anti-acne diet work?

Are you looking for a diet to get rid of acne in a single week? That is something very attractive but, does it really work? According to dermatologist Dr Teo, such diets will not work because acne itself is predominantly a genetic condition that affects individuals with a family history for example.

The foods to avoid if you have acne prone skin include dairy products. Milk for example, can stimulate inflammatory responses in your skin associated with your insulin response. Saturated fats found in deep fried oily food will also increase the activity of your oil glands. In general if you are prone to acne, it may be wise to consume plant-based vegetarian foods as this contributes to overall healthier skin. This is because of the many antioxidants which also reduce inflammation have anti-inflammatory benefits found in plant-based foods.

In this excerpt from Edible Beauty by one of Singapore’s prominent dermatologist Dr Teo Wan Lin, we share on key information that can help you build an anti-acne diet. We often wonder if it’s really true that junk food causes acne and the interactions of our diet with the pathways involved in acne formation. We are going to delve into acne metabolomics and how it affects inflammation and the process of comedogenesis. 

What are the major food classes that cause acne?

There are three major food classes that have been established in the scientific literature to promote acne. The first major food class is hyperglycaemic carbohydrates. The second category will be milk and dairy products. The third category are saturated fats, including trans fats and diets that are deficient in anti-inflammatory omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are often found in fatty fish and nuts. 

Important key term to describe the role of diet in acne pathogenesis   

IGF-1, stands for insulin growth factor 1, and it is the main mediator that links dairy consumption with acne. IGF-1 is highest at puberty and thereafter decreases continuously. It is not just your hormones, the androgens testosterone the male hormone that links to acne formation, but it’s actually the serum levels of IGF-1 that correlates with the manifestation of acne. 

How does diet affect acne development?

Research findings support this theory in acne pathogenesis, as it is part of a medical syndrome known as Lauren syndrome. Lauren syndrome is a genetic defect in IGF-1, due to growth hormone receptor mutations. Interestingly, these patients never develop acne or many diseases related to the Western civilization. However, when we administer high doses of IGF-1 to these growth hormone receptor deficient patients, we find that it’s possible to induce acne and a state of hyper-androgenism. We want to focus on the increasing interest in the Western diet and how it directly impacts acne metabolomics.

With regards to the high acne prevalence of over 90% in adolescence and persistence into the second and third decades of life, we find that in up to 60% to 70% of these individuals, both environmental and genetic factors interact to cause predisposition to acne. Distinctively, populations that keep to Paleolithic diets, for example, those with low glycemic load without milk or dairy consumption, such as the Papa New Guinea Islanders, are acne free. We have also observed an increase in acne prevalence in the Chinese after transitioning from traditional diets to Western nutrition.

This accumulating evidence points towards the influence of nutrients and nutrition in the development of acne. Specifically, one should focus on nutrients that increase IGF-1 signaling, as the most critical features are what we call epidemic acne. There is increasing evidence of epidemic acne vulgaris which is driven by the same processes we observe in the systemic diseases of Western civilization in conjunction with diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer. 

Evidence of major food classes that cause acne

In a study of a cohort of New York young adults, acne severity was associated with the increased intake of sugar, high glycemic load, increased milk consumption as well as saturated fat and trans fat intake. It’s very relevant for us to see how these nutrients interact with one’s personal genetics, nutrigenomic impact in this influence on these food classes. 

High intake, or refined carbohydrates, plays a definite role in acne formation. In a study, there was a correlation with a low glycemic load diet and a decrease in sebaceous gland size in facial acne skin over 10 weeks. We can best describe this as a metabolomic reaction which were evident in meta metabolomic studies.

Milk increases and stimulates IGF-1, it is an acnegenic food, meaning it can cause acne . Saturated fat and trans fat are our focus today. We should highlight that studies demonstrate that industrially-produced trans fats, which are major components of fast food, worsen acne. Hydrogenated fats, partially hydrogenated fats have replaced natural solid fats, most notably in fast food, snacks, fried foods and baked goods. We can associate all of these with diet-induced acne. 

Other ways that diet affects acne development

Another perspective is that the Western diet promotes inflammasome activation, and we know clearly that acne is related to inflammation. There are clearly genetic factors but because of the epidemic prevalence of acne, one can pay more attention to the influence of environmental factors, in this case we will zoom into the influence of diet on the overall evolution of acne, especially in populations that are acne-free. 

It has been said that sebum is the oil of the acne flame, so P. acnes, the bacteria that causes acne, thrives when you have an increase in oil production. Additionally, the free fatty acids promote the process of white head and black head formation, also known as comedogenesis. Research shows that the chemical mediator IL17, contributes to keratinocyte overgrowth, which plays a role in the comedogenesis process that occurs in acne patients.

On top of that, oleic acid, a free fatty acid, when applied on the inner surface of the ear of rabbits in an animal study, induced comedones. In addition, there is a lot of evidence that Western diet increases the local bioavailability of free palmitic oleic acid, which drives whitehead and blackhead formation. These cytokines interleukins which directly play a role in inflammation in acne and in comedone information are also evidence of this entire inflammation process. 

How can we improve our diet?

With regards to dietary interventions, it is important to note that androgen abuse, the use of male hormone steroids, for example in bodybuilding, is also a synergistic factor to your diet in terms of the effects of acne – acnegenic effects. Combining both the Western diet that drives nutrient signaling pathways, chemical mediators. and the influence of genetics results in an overall increase in an individual’s chances of developing acne.

If you suffer from acne, you should control your total caloric intake. It may be helpful to restrict your sugar and refine carbohydrate intake. The same goes for milk and protein supplements and definitely, avoid junk food which are high in saturated fats and trans fats. All these increase sebum activity which has a direct impact on acne. 

An anti-acne diet can look like a Palaeolithic-like nutrition with an increase in intake of vegetables and fruits with low glycemic index. Moreover, fish consumption that’s is rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, can be part of an ideal anti-acne diet that will reduce the severity of your acne. This diet is especially helpful when you are undergoing treatment as well.

Dermatologist’s advice

Dermatologists advise medical therapy for moderate to severe cases of acne. This is usually a combination of application of acne creams together with oral medications. However if oral medications are not your preferred option, you may consider Photon Light Therapy, also known as LED light therapy. We traditionally use this in dermatologists’ offices to treat the bacteria, propionibacterium acnes, that we associate with acne. 

Aurora light therapy home skincare device for acne
Aurora is a lightweight NEXT GEN photon light therapy device with 7 therapeutic wavelengths. Recommended for use for all skin types, includes dry sensitive aging  skin, combination, acne/oily skin, rosacea. Complete kit with remote control, head rest, strap and safety goggles.

An acne-free diet plan is helpful but also consider home LED light therapy. The Photon Light Therapy machine by Dr. TWL Dermatologists Tools Suite offers clinical grade home light therapy in a machine that is designed to offer the same efficacy as what is offered in the clinic. This is superior to LED face masks. 

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Anti-Acne Diet

Your daily diet can improve acne symptoms. This is contrary to some research that states that what you eat plays no role in acne. Indulging in high GI food and dairy can increase the production of acne. In an RMIT University study, young men, who were on an “Anti-acne Diet” comprising of more protein and less carbohydrates, such as fresh fruits, lean meat, and whole grains for 12 weeks, showed significant improvement in their skin condition – a 50% reduction in facial acne lesions.

Besides skin benefits, this dietary change has also led to other benefits such as a decrease in insulin resistance – lower risk of weight gain, and type 2 diabetes. An improvement in the quality of life was seen because the reduction of acne has had a positive effect on teenagers’ self-esteem, confidence, and overall mood. This was mentioned in the previous chapters that acne has an impact on our emotional well-being. 

Learn more about the nutraceutical color code by Dr. Teo Wan Lin, developed for easy identification of the active nutraceutical ingredients in various foods and vegetables that are sold in the supermarket.

Importance of a low-GI diet

High GI foods cause your blood sugar to rise and may trigger acne production. Therefore, opt for a low GI foods anti-acne diet. For example, fresh vegetables, beans, steel-cut oats to control your blood sugar level and be less prone to acne. 

What is the Glycemic Index (GI)?

The GI measures the rise-and-fall effect specific carbohydrates have on blood glucose. Only carbohydrate foods affect blood glucose levels. It is based on a 50g serve of carbohydrate. High GI foods with a score of 70 or more, such as sugary breakfast cereals, white bread, potatoes and biscuits, are more quickly digested and absorbed, causing blood glucose levels to rise rapidly.

This sudden glucose spike causes inflammation in your body. It triggers the pancreas to produce high levels of insulin, which stimulates hormones associated with acne. These hormones cause your body to produce more sebum, colloquially known as oil. This excess oil and inflammation in your skin will trigger acne production. Low GI foods are slowly digested and absorbed, causing blood glucose levels to rise slowly over time and have a lower insulin response. 

Choose low GI foods with a score of 55 or less, such as porridge, whole grain bread, basmati rice and baked beans that leads to a slow and steady rise in blood glucose levels rather than a rise-and-fall effect we get when we feed our body with high GI foods. When we are able to lower our insulin levels, we can control our hormones which leads to a reduction in acne. Therefore, it is crucial to choose the healthier carb to keep your acne in check.

Does dairy cause acne?

Dairy and milk intake is likely to influence acne presentation due to the steroid hormones or sugars present in milk. Studies have shown that skim milk is more comedogenic than whole milk. Whey, a protein found in skimmed milk increases the production of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1. Insulin increases the production of sebum, which is associated with the development of acne. It also can trigger the production of hormones and lead to increased oil production. This can clog up your pores, which triggers acne to form.

Most studies found that cheese, yogurt, and ice cream intake did not significantly impact the risk of acne. Thus, the acnegenic effect of dairy is unlikely to be caused by the fat content in dairy products, but rather by hormones in milk. 

Nonetheless, the sugars in dairy products and chocolate trigger insulin secretion, which leads to increased keratinocyte proliferation and the formation of acne. Thus, limiting dairy, in general, can be helpful in controlling acne. In conclusion, there are many factors to consider if dairy leads to acne formation in an individual. Factors such as age, gender, lactase persistence of an individual need to be considered as these will affect the effect of dairy on an individual. 

In conclusion, there are many other factors to consider when studying the effect of dairy on individuals. Factors such as age, gender, lactase persistence of an individual needs to be considered as these are determinant of the effect of dairy on an individual.

How should we eat to control our acne? What is the best anti-acne diet?

whole grains anti-acne diet

Switch to low GI food

  • Start your day with high-fiber breakfast cereals, such as porridge, natural muesli 
  • Swap white bread for wholegrain varieties. 
  • Choose pasta and basmati rice instead of white rice 
  • Include legumes, tofu, lentils, or chickpeas to your diet

Include more fruits and vegetables 

  • Aim for three servings of fruits daily
  • Eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables a day (preferably lower in GI i.e. broccoli and capsicum) 

Limit processed foods

  • Avoid sugary breakfast cereals and ready-to-eat snacks. 
  • Drink water instead of soft drinks
  • Eat more home-cooked meals, limit eating out or take away 
  • Avoid or limit refined white foods, such as bread, cakes, and biscuits 

Limit dairy products

  • Limit intake of dairy especially skimmed milk, milk products

Try to make healthier choices (especially when eating out)

  • Request sauces and dressings on the side 
  • Limit dishes that are deep-fried, pan-fried, battered; go for steamed  
  • Skip extras such as fries and white bread rolls in favor of vegetables or a side salad. 
  • Eat fruits instead of dessert

Asian Food


  • Opt for clear soups, steamed appetizers, steamed rice.
  • Limit: fried rice, sweet-and-sour or lemon-sauce dishes and deep-fried foods such as spring rolls, egg rolls, dim sums 


  • Choose: Sushi and sashimi, miso soup, ramen noodle and udon noodles in broth. 
  • Limit: Deep-fried dishes such as katsu-don (fried pork) or tempura (seafood or vegetables in batter) 


  • Choose: Pho – a rice-noodle soup with lean pieces of beef or chicken with bean shoots, Vietnamese rice paper rolls
  • Limit: Spring rolls and fried noodle dishes


  • Choose: Soup dishes such as Tom Yum soup, Thai beef salad, mango sticky rice, and hot pot 
  • Limit: Coconut-based soup or curries, fried noodles such as Pad Thai, Thai pineapple fried rice 


  • Choose: Yogurt-based curries, tomato-based soup, dishes with lentils, chickpeas and vegetables. Eat with steamed basmati rice. 
  • Limit: Creamy curries, butter sauces, deep-fried samosas, curry puffs, pappadams, and oily bread i.e. prata, naan 


  • Choose pasta or soup with tomato-based sauces such as Bolognese, Minestrone
  • Limit: Lasagne, creamy risottos, or creamy pasta sauces. Limit cheese. 

Overall, a healthy anti-acne diet with low GI carbohydrates, more protein, and limited dairy is essential in treating and controlling acne, in addition to the products and treatments used for your skin. 

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Apart from the incorporation of an anti-acne diet, regular exercise is necessary for maintaining skin health. High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT is a workout regimen that involves periods of intense exercise alternated with short periods of recovery. In terms of heart rate, during HIIT a person’s heart rate reaches at least 80 percent of its maximum capacity usually for one to five minutes, with periods of rest or less intense exercise in between. The biggest advantage of HIIT is that you can get optimal health benefits in minimal time. Rather than working out i.e running at a continuous pace, HIIT adds in periods of intervals of high intensity.

Engaging in short but intense bursts of exercises is a useful way to burn fat and increase lean muscle mass. This is because the intensity of the exercises leads to an increased rate of fat oxidation during the exercise itself. After the exercise, as the body recovers from its oxygen-deprived state, your body increases post-exercise oxygen consumption, adipose tissue is broken down and converted into fuel. This helps to burn fat, even after your HIIT exercise – the “afterburn effect”.

HIIT reduces insulin resistance, which in turn lowers hormones that trigger the production of acne. Additionally, during and after working out, our circulation increases thus our bloodstream can deliver more oxygen and nutrients to the skin, enhancing cell growth and skin repair. 

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